Date: Fri, 7 May 2004
> I hope that you have an awesome race :-) And I'll
> see you around 9am tomorrow morning!
Yeah, I hope I have an awesome race too. Unfortunately,
based on the way I feel today (a 3.5 mile jog was a
struggle, and I can feel my ankle a little), it'll take
some sort of christmas miracle. I know that I have a habit
of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, but this
might be a tough one. Who knows... A little rain today
and tomorrow might make everything, well, right as rain.
Or, it might be a very long hundred miles. I'd suggest
coming prepared for all contingencies.
I'll see you tomorrow.
I've had good races. I've had bad races. I've been able to perform well when by all standard reasoning, I should never have started, and I've been able to get through some very low spots to reach a finish line. But at the Massanutten Mountain Trail (MMT) 100 Mile Trail Run last weekend, I did something for only the second time in my race history. More to the point, I didn't do something: I didn't finish.
The first time I DNFd was at a marathon. I had not been racing for very long, and that race was going to be my second marathon. Signing up for the race was a last minute decision, so I didn't have a deep emotional investment in the race. A few days before the marathon, I developed some IT band troubles. Perhaps I shouldn't have started the race at all, but I was only able to run 13 miles before I could run no more. In a way it was a good experience. I learned something important: not finishing sucks. Even if it's a race that doesn't mean a whole lot, even if it's due to factors beyond your control, when you DNF, you feel like you've failed where many other were able to succeed.
Throughout my racing career, I've carried that experience with me. There have been times when I've considered dropping from a race. But the first thought that comes to my mind is the memory of me standing at the finish line of that marathon, watching other athletes get their medals while all I had to show for my effort was a sore knee and some sweaty clothes. That experience always reminded me that no matter how bad I felt, as long as I finished what I started, I'd be satisfied.
Before driving down to Front Royal for MMT this weekend, I had some concerns. Since January, I've had some tendinitis in my left foot. By the beginning of April, it was getting bad enough that it was interfering with training. After discussing it with my doctor, I decided that I'd ride it out through some races in the middle of April, then take the period between those races and MMT to try to heal my foot. I was somewhat concerned about the April races, but my tendinitis didn't bother me significantly. Then I spent three weeks wearing a large, plastic boot to immobilize my ankle. I swam some and aquajogged a bit, but it definitely forced the taper.
My second concern was allergies. I had never had allergies before, so on the Wednesday before the race, when I was dealing with the pressure in my head and the fluid coming out of my nose, I thought I had an ear infection. I saw a doctor on Thursday, and learned that it was allergies.
The day before the race, I went on a three mile run. It felt long and difficult and by the end, I could feel the tendinitis in my ankle. I knew that it was not out of the question that I would be feeling better the next morning, but I was still concerned.
When I reached race headquarters --- Skyline Ranch Resort in Front Royal --- I was feeling a bit better. A weather front moved through on Friday night, a couple hours of rain and wind. By the time I got to bed, I could still feel my tendinitis, but my head was much less congested.
At 5:00am on Saturday, the race began. Three miles of road allowed the field to spread out before the beginning of the single-track. Then a couple miles of climbing allowed folks to get into a comfortable position. Thinking about how I'd feel after 80 miles, I was holding back quite a bit. Heading down hills, I had to be careful about foot placement to avoid irritating my tendinitis. Heading up hills, I was just doing a relaxed walk. On the flats... Well, I didn't have to worry about that since there are no flats.
I passed through the second aid station, eight miles into the race, and started another road section. The next 16 miles to aid station five (AS5), Habron Gap, would alternate between rolling gravel roads and single track trails several times. This is the easiest section of the race. According to my plan, I'd reach Habron Gap (AS5) sometime around 9:00am. Although that would be almost a quarter of the way through the race in terms of distance, those first 24 miles are hardly worth mentioning. You do some roads and some trails and you get warmed up for the difficulty to come. Nobody ever won anything for getting to mile 24 first, so I settled in. Scott Eppleman, then Peter Bakwin went by me. I continued to walk up hills easily, so Scott and Peter were soon gone. Depending on the terrain, I'd get within sight of them or I'd drop farther back.
Eventually, I realized that I was slowing down on the down hills. My legs were starting to feel fatigued. That shouldn't be happening in the first 24 miles of a 100 mile race. At first, I attributed it to the care I was taking in foot placement. I was just holding myself back, I decided. Thinking about it a bit more, I decided, no, even if I wanted to go faster, I couldn't go much faster. While that concerned me a little bit, it was still early, and it could just be that my legs needed some time to shake out three weeks of not running and the significant allergies I had experienced earlier in the week.
On the last section of road before the Habron Gap aid station (AS5), I was not too far behind Scott and Peter. A arrived at the aid station before they had left, and Chris, my support crew, was there, waiting for me.
"Well hello, Aaron! Long time, no see."
"It's been far too long. How are you?"
"I'm fine. And you?"
Chris and I had not seen each other since January, and she wasn't able to come down for the race until Saturday morning. I had e-mailed her my plan for the race, and put all of my extra shouldn't-need-it-but-should-have-it gear in my first drop bag. As I arrived, she handed me a can of Ensure and a small can of V8. As I drank them, she swapped my water bottles with fresh ones, and replaced the hammer gel flasks in my pack with full ones. I hadn't planned on stopping at the next aid station (Camp Roosevelt --- AS6), but the day was getting warm. I told Chris to have two bottles of water ready for me at Camp Roosevelt. Everything worked as expected, and having reached the first milestone of the day, I set out for the next section of the course.
Out of Habron Gap (AS5), the course goes over the first significant climb of the day. This was the first place where I was feeling bad. Not, "bad: this is a long, hard climb." Rather, "bad: I'm feeling a lot worse than I should be feeling at this point in the race." I struggled up the hill as it became steeper and steeper. Just when the trail reached a ridge and I thought the climbing was done, the trail turned to head up to a higher ridge. I could finally start running again along the higher ridge.
I came to a blow-down that blocked the trail. I looked behind me to make sure I wasn't missing a turn, then I bushwhacked my way around it. After the next big blow-down, I became concerned. At Friday's pre-race briefing, a representative from the forest service said that all the trails on the course are in good condition, and Scott Mills, who had overseen the marking of the course in the days before the race never mentioned any big blow-downs. After bushwhacking around several more blow-downs, and not seeing any course markings for four or five minutes, I decided to cut my losses. I must have taken a wrong turn, so I needed to go back to the last course marking I had seen. After several minutes of making my way back up the trail, I ran into John Geesler. I asked, "Is this the right way?"
"Yeah, it's gotta be. This is the only way off the mountain."
"Okay, I just hadn't seen any course markings for a while."
"A little nervous after last year?"
Yup, he knew what was going through my mind. This was the second year in a row that I met Geesler in this race while I was going the wrong way down a trail and he turned me around. We ran together for a short while before he pulled ahead. I was coming to the sad realization that this was not going to be my day. I felt weak. That wasn't necessarily bad; I had many miles ahead in which I could come around. The tendinitis in my foot was slowing me down a bit. Again, not necessarily a bad thing; perhaps it would just force me to run at a more conservative pace and save myself for the later miles of the race. But my legs were feeling trashed. I've done enough long events to know that most of the time, when you feel bad, you just need to wait it out and things will get better. I've also done enough to know when things are actually going wrong. This was a case of things actually going wrong.
I don't mean that things were terrible. I mean that I knew that my legs weren't going to just "come around." My goal had been to finish under 24 hours. Even before I reached Camp Roosevelt (AS6), I knew that this was not the weekend that was going to happen. The best thing to do would be to settle in and enjoy the day.It didn't look like we were going to get the rain that some forecasters has expected. There wasn't a cloud in the sky, and on the trails, with the shade and breeze, the temperature was very nice. It was time to switch from race mode to long training run mode. No pressure. Enjoy the day.
I caught up to John Geesler at about the same time that John Dove caught both of us. The last few miles before Camp Roosevelt (AS6) consists of small rollers. Geesler runs at one pace no matter what the terrain is. I go slow up hills and fast down hills. On this kind of terrain, Geesler should have been pulling away on the short climbs and I should have been catching up on the descents. But I was keeping up with him on the up hills (which meant that he was struggling), and I didn't have it in me to go down the hills any faster than we were moving (which meant that I was struggling). So the three of us ran until the trail came out of the woods a short distance from the aid station.
I found Chris, and while she swapped my empty water bottles for fresh ones, I grabbed some ginger ale and mountain dew from the aid station. I told Chris, "I think I'm gonna be moving to Plan B now. This is just going to be a day to finish."
I left Camp Roosevelt (AS6) on the gradual climb that would take me over the next mountain to Gap Creek I (AS7). The trail looks like a creek bed, and with good reason. By this point last year, it had been raining for several hours, and this trail had literally become a creek. In many places, the water was mid-shin deep, and there was really no way around it. This year, the weather was great, the trail was dry, and I had no pressure.
I had been looking forward to the race for a long time. The trails in the Massanuttens are challenging and fun. I had no place else to be, and plenty of time to cover the course. I took my time, making my way up the trail and enjoying the day. Eventually, John Dove caught up with me. He had spent more time in the last aid station. I let him by, and stuck with him for a while. He said that Geesler was not feeling too good; he had some stomach trouble. We chatted about the race and the trails. He had raced here two years ago, and he was doing well until he feet became trashed, and he had to do "the sad walk" for the last 15 miles (then pledged never to try this race again). I had been here last year, and I was doing well until my achilles became trashed, I had to do "the sad walk" for the last 12 miles.
As we approached the next aid station, I just didn't have it in me to keep up with him, so he pulled away over the last half mile. Chris was ready at Gap Creek I (AS7, mile 39) with a can of Ensure and a can of V8. While I drank, she swapped my bottles and hammer gel flasks. One of the volunteers commented that Chris was like an Indy pit crew. We had a system that would get me through the aid stations with minimal time wasted. If I had still been racing, it would have been much more Indy-pit-crew-esque. But I was in no particular rush at this point.
I left the aid station just behind John Dove, and hustled up to him at the beginning of the climb up to Jawbone Gap. He had forgotten this part of the course, so I described it to him --- a short climb that gets steep in some places, then a left turn at the top to follow the ridge of Kerns Mountain. The miles along Kerns Mountain are particularly slow since the trail constantly weaves back and forth, with very short ups and down, over rocky terrain with no good footing. After descending off the mountain, there's an unmanned aid station and a two mile stretch of road before the Visitors Center (AS8). The course is a large figure-eight, and the climb at the beginning of this section --- up to Jawbone Gap --- is where the north and south loops of the course overlap, so we do that climb twice.
"Huh, funny, I don't remember this climb at all. I certainly don't remember doing it twice," he said.
"You probably tried to forget it."
Like I said, it's not so long, but it does get steep in places. It's somewhat challenging at mile 39. It's less fun at mile 65. I didn't have the energy to really move up the hill so fast, but I pushed it a little. John, being polite (as we were mid-conversation), took it a little easy up the hill. After we reached the top, I had to take it easy to recover, and he kept moving. His goal was to finish under 26 hours. I kinda thought that if he was at that point at that time, he was on pace for something a bit faster than that. I didn't see him again, but he ended up running under 24 hours.
Over Kerns Mountain, I did little more than walk the entire way. No energy, hurting legs and the tendinitis in my foot were all giving me problems. Still, it was a beautiful day to be on the trails. I started to see other runners on the trail. I'd just step aside and let them pass. Near the end, I saw Geesler.
"I'm glad to see you're feeling better. I heard you had some stomach issues," I said as he went by.
"My stomach was shutting down. I could hardly keep my eyes open on the trail. I took a little break at the aid station, and ate a bit, and I'm feeling a little better now. How 'bout you?"
"Ehh, not my day," I told him.
"Maybe take a break and you'll come around."
I sort of knew that with the soreness I was already feeling in my legs, it wasn't likely that I'd come around, but it sounded like a good idea to take a break. At the next aid station, just take my merry old time. After all, I was just out for a long training run.
The combination of the difficult trail along Kerns Mountain, the stretch of road that follows it and having all that come at just the point in the day when you're starting to feel the miles can really bring you down. Last year, I got to the Visitors Center (AS8, mile 48) feeling the blahs, but realizing that it was just a passing thing. This year, I was much more prepared for this bit of road that offers no distraction from the fact that you're Not There Yet.
The first person I saw as I came into the aid station was David Horton. "AARON," he said, "I EXPECTED TO SEE YOU HERE A WHILE AGO!"
"Ehh, not my day."
I ambled over to Chris, who said, "Looky who's here!"
Gary, the president of the company where I work, had come down to the race with his young son, Adam, to cheer and see what this 100 miler is all about. He had recruited Michelle, another coworker, to help make a poster on the company's big poster printer. Next to "RUN AARON RUN" was a picture of me running. Well, that's not entirely true. It was a large picture of my head making an angry face on a much smaller body (that is clearly not mine) of someone running. So this was a perfect time for me to take a few extra minutes to chill out and chat with folks. But Chris, being the good support crew she is, eventually started to push me back on the trail. Everyone else who is familiar with my normal habit of speeding through the aid stations was starting to join in, so I figured that it was time to start the next section. I explained to Gary that if I didn't leave immediately, I'd be mercilessly flogged. He wished me luck, noting that, "chances are probably well less than 30% that you'll be eaten by a bear!"
The next section starts down the gentle Wildflower trail for a couple hundred meters before a right turn that starts an abrupt climb up to Birds Knob. There are other climbs on this course that are long and climbs that are steep and climbs that are technical. There are even climbs that are any combination of two of those. The climb up to Birds Knob is the only climb that is all three. I've done the climb on training runs that I've started from the Visitors Center (AS8). Even with fresh legs, this climb has made me wish that I had never been born. After 48 miles... Well... It still makes me wish I had never been born, and I'm moving slower.
Geesler had also spent a few minutes at the aid station. He was right behind me on the climb. I was moving slowly. "You wanna go by?" I asked.
So we inched our way to the top. Near the top, I saw something coming at me. I jumped to the side of the trail, and so did Geesler. Peter Bakwin was flying down the trail. About 15 feet behind him was Serge Arbona. I hardly had time to comment to Geesler that it looked like an exciting race, when we had to jump off the trail again to make way for Sean Andrish. Moments later, Barry Lewis went by. A couple moments later, Scott Eppleman passed through. It seemed like the top five guys were within about four minutes of each other, and they all were running hard.
Geesler and I continued to the top of the climb. We finally reached the short spur trail at the top that leads a couple meters out of the way to a stunning view of the valley to the west. I told Geesler, "I'm not doing all that work without some reward." I took a moment to follow the spur so that I could enjoy the view. When I returned to the trail, I tried to run a little, but my legs wouldn't have any of it. So this is how it would be: even where the trail became fairly runnable, I wouldn't be able to take advantage of it. A few moments later, Keith Knipling came by. "What's up with the gimpy walk? How you doing?" he asked.
"Ehh, not my day."
"Yeah, I just don't have anything in me today. But you're doing great!"
After he disappeared down the trail, I realized that I wasn't walking quite right --- he was right, I was limping a little. I was favoring my good foot. I tried to break into a jog a few times. I'd make it about 15 feet before I'd have to start walking again. The volunteers at the Birds Knob aid station (AS9, no crew access) refilled my water bottles as I had a few sips of soda. I tried to leave the aid station jogging, but I gave up on that in relatively short order.
I started looking forward to the descend from Birds Knob. It wasn't the descent so much (no, I was sure that wasn't going to be particularly comfortable) as the prospect of seeing people. Although the course is a figure-eight, this section is a small "lollipop" off the south end. We head up the long climb, then do a small loop, then head back down to continue along the main figure-eight.
I returned to the climb, which, for me, was now a descent. I exchanged good words with folks making their way up the climb. As I approached Gary Knipling coming up the trail, I called out, "Ahh, the estimable Mr. Knipling!"
"Oh, Aaron, hello there!" He stopped to greet me with a handshake.
"How are you?" I asked.
"I'm uhh... So-so. And you?"
"A little worse than that."
"Ehh, not my day."
And with a wave and a farewell, we each continued in our respective directions. A short while later, I saw a face that I thought I recognized. "Kathy Roche-Wallace?" I asked, not quite sure.
"Hi... Aaron Schwartzbard... We met last October... You were doing the triple, I was doing the double..."
"Oh, yes, hi!"
"How are you?" I asked.
"I'm not doing great. How are you?"
"I'm not doing so great either."
We spoke for a few more moments before continuing on. The previous October, she had finished second overall in the Odyssey Triple Iron Triathlon. Anyone who saw how strong she was at that event that took nearly 60 hours to complete could have no doubt that she's an amazing athlete. On this hill, she seemed to be having about the same sort of day I was having. While I was sorry to see that things we're going well for her, it was a good reminder that even the toughest athletes have bad days.
Shortly after finishing the descent, another person passed me. It was the first woman, and eventual winner, Annette Bednosky. "Annette!" I said as she passed, "You're doing AWESOME!"
"Thanks, Aaron. What's going on with you? The foot thing?"
"Ehh, just not my day. But YOU'RE doing AWESOME!"
"Thanks. I have no idea where the next woman is... Could be two minutes, could be two hours!"
She really was doing great. I didn't have all the number in my head for the course record, but I knew she couldn't be too far off, and she was running well.
I checked the time. The last time I saw Chris, I was only 15 minutes behind the slow end of my predicted splits. She might not have realized that things were going to slow down dramatically. Having walked almost the entire way since the Visitors Center (AS8), I'd be more like an hour or an hour and a half late to the next aid station, 211 East (AS10).
Although I wasn't feeling great, I still felt pretty fortunate. The weather had turned out to be wonderful, the trails were in good condition, and I had enough time that I could enjoy the day (and night and next day) on the trails without any pressure other than to move forward at a conservative pace (not that I had much choice in the matter).
When I arrived at 211 East (AS10), I had traveled 58 miles. Chris was waiting, but this time, she wasn't so quick to push me out of the aid station. I thought that the amount of time it took me to cover the last section made her realize that things were going downhill from here (figuratively, of course). Later, she would note that the thing that concerned her most was watching the way I had to side-step up the short embankment to the aid station. She knew that my foot was giving me trouble.
After leaving the aid station, I was ready to do some math. Perhaps this section of trail somehow inspires equations. Last year, when I reached this point I was slightly frustrated, but for a different reason. Last year, I had lost 20 minutes on Birds Knob due to a slight detour. I wanted to make up that time. It was on this section of trail that I started to calculate when I would like to reach each of the remaining aid stations. I had decided that with the distance almost 60% behind me, I could start to push. This is where I really started to race last year.
This year, however, I was doing a different sort of math. 'A little past 6:00pm, 23 hours left in the race, 40 miles, if I do 30 minute miles, that's 20 hours, which is 2:00pm tomorrow, but I'm walking a little faster than 30 minute miles now, so maybe 22 minute miles or 24 minute miles, so maybe noon tomorrow, if I don't slow down significantly, but I've been slowing down, so how slow is my saddest sad walk?' There were too many variables. Maybe if I had paper and a pencil... In any case, I had almost 23 hours in which to cover a little more than 40 miles. Seemed reasonable. Just keep moving.
The funny thing is that out of all the times I've done the section of the course between 211 East (AS10) and Gap Creek II (AS11) --- I've done it many times in training runs --- it has always seemed long. It seems to go up and down and weave back and forth through the hills. This time, despite moving slower than I ever have on this section in the past, it seemed to go by relatively quickly, until I reached the descent. The long, rocky downhill at the end was challenging. My legs were absolutely rebelling. I was having a difficult time gently inching my way down. (The last time I ran down this section of trail, my biggest problem was that I was moving so fast that my eyes were tearing up in the wind, making it hard to see the rocks.)
It was getting to the point that my legs weren't just hurting; they were becoming difficult to control. I didn't have the strength or reflexes to deal with a stumble or poor foot placement. So each step required a bit of planning. At the bottom of the descent. I came to a gravel road that I'd have to follow for a mile and a half to the Gap Creek II aid station (AS11).
In the state of mind I was experiencing, road sections can be deadly. Trails give you some distraction. Limping down the road (and by this point, my limp had become a bit more significant), with a long straightaway ahead, I had nothing to consider other than how much my legs hurt. I would expect my legs to be tired by this point, and even a little sore. But not like this. Something was wrong. And I didn't like it. Not one bit!
So I kept moving with those sorts of thoughts in my head, interrupted only by the occasional car passing (such as the pick-up truck that wasn't associated with the race, but that had a concerned driver --- "Hey... Uhh... You okay? You need a ride someplace?") or the occasional runner passing (usually asking, "You alright?" To which I would usually reply, "Ehh, not my day.").
A funny thing happens in the course of endurance events. As the fatigue of the miles takes its toll, the athlete becomes less and less able to present himself to the world as he would like to present himself to the world. Instead, he is reduced to his most primordial self. Normally, that sort of thing would come much later in a race for me, but I seem to have started this race at a deficit. After the mile and a half I spent on that stretch of road at the end of 65 miles, when I finally reached Gap Creek II (AS11), I was so happy to have reached the aid station, and so pained my by current situation, and so exhausted from whatever it was that was making this Not My Day... Rob Saraniero was the first one to greet me. "How you doing, Aaron?"
"I... Uhh..." and I tried to go on, but there was nothing there. I could feel the tears starting to well up. It took everything I had not to start bawling right there.
"Hey man, what's the matter? What's wrong?"
I tried to say, "Everything," but I think it came out more like, "eee.....n..."
I put my head down, and just tried to keep walking. A brief glance around, and I could see a swirl of Chris and Rob and Mel and Michele and other volunteers who were keeping some distance from what was obviously a fairly bad scene. I stopped moving so Chris could change my water bottles. I felt that I needed to get out of there before I broke down, so I started walking again. Chris stopped me, "Wait! I'm not done!" So I let her finish, then she handed me a flashlight (the sun was about to set), and I hightailed it out of there at top speed. Of course, top speed just about one notch above a hobble. I had to face it, I was officially doing the sad walk. 'Well, THAT was most undignified,' I thought.
I started the climb up to Jawbone Gap for the second time in the race. I'd be on the northern loop of the course again soon. I decided that I needed some milestones to keep me going. How many more climbs? This climb is one. Then the climb up Short Mountain after Moreland Gap (AS12). And the climb after Edinburg Gap (AS13). And then between Powells Fort (AS15) and Elizabeth Furnace (AS16), and finally after Elizabeth Furnace (AS16). Five more climbs. 'I can do five more climbs.'
A greater concern was whether my sore foot could do five more climbs. I had to turn it at odd angles to get up the hill. I tried walking sideways and backwards, but I decided that I'd probably trip. I had to start using my light somewhere around the top of the climb. After the descent down the other side of the mountain I was having significant trouble with the trail. With the darkness of night being added to the mix, I was coming close to falling on rocks that I could easily pass on a good day. Everything that had gone wrong was coming together to make the trail almost impassable for me. My left foot wasn't quite working correctly, my legs were hurting to much to make any sudden moves and I had so little energy that the effort required to compensate for my other issues just wasn't there. At one point, I tried to step up onto a rock. Half way through the step, I found myself falling backward. If not for a conveniently placed tree, I would have fallen hard onto some other rocks. It was around that time that a couple guys passed me and asked how I was doing.
"Not so well."
"Well you must be doing alright if you're here already!"
Now that it was dark, they couldn't see the difficulty I was having. All they could see was my green light moving forward. But in a way, they were right. My green light was moving forward, and it was much closer to the front of the race than the back. I had plenty of time, even at a much slower pace. However, the section between Gap Creek II (AS11) and Moreland Gap (AS12) is only about three miles. In that distance, in my precipitous descent through the day, I had crossed the threshold between "not my day" and "can't safely go on."
This course is known as being very rocky. That's one of the challenges of it. But out of the entire course, one section in particular is know for being especially rocky: Short Mountain. It's an eight mile stretch with a challenging climb at the beginning, a long, moderate descent at the end, and nothing but rocks in between. I might risk it on other sections of the course. But attempting Short Mountain with the way my legs were felt like too much of a risk.
As I approached the aid station, Chris, walked toward me. "How are you?" she asked.
I didn't bother to answer. "What's the cut-off for this aid station?"
"I'm not sure. You want me to find out?"
She found the aid station captain, and returned to me a moment later. "3:30am." I checked my watch. It was 9:30pm.
"I need to... Uhh... Take some time here."
"You want a seat?"
We both knew what that meant. I don't sit during races. Even when things are tough, I stay on my feet until the end.
In the past, Chris has declared two rules for this kind of event:
1. Never quit at night
2. Never quit without being timed out.
I wasn't ready to hand over my number just yet. This aid station would be open for another six hours. People would come though this spot almost six hours after I arrived, and they would finish. I should be able to take my time, to recover here, to start moving again and get to the end. The guys on the trail were right; if I'm at mile 68 at 9:30pm, I'm doing alright. And anyway, the whole point of this sort of thing is that you DON'T stop when it gets tough. It's OKAY! It's SUPPOSED to hurt!
But not like this. I know how it's supposed to hurt, and it's not like this. In fact, I've been in much worse places --- mentally and emotionally --- during long races, and I've kept going. This isn't about overcoming difficulty. This is about recognizing one's own limitations. On this day, my legs just weren't working. Not only would I be risking significant damage to a tendon in my foot if I were to keep going, but I'd be putting myself in the path of some completely new and exciting injury.
I spoke with Kevin Black at the aid station for a short while. He pointed out that some days, things just weren't meant to be. I watched other runners and crews come through, and offered encouragement. Chris and I chatted for a while about nothing in particular. She told me how much she had been enjoying the day. Last year, she had ridden her mountain bike from aid station to aid station as my support crew (completing a parallel 100 miles on dirt and gravel roads around the race course). This year, she drove, and spent more time in the company of other people at the aid stations. She thoroughly enjoyed spending time with all the great volunteers and other crews who were out there.
After two hours, it was time to give up the ghost. I knew that many of the people I had seen pass through the aid station would finish. I knew that people who would arrive after I had left would be able to finish. Unfortunately, I also knew that even if I waited until 3:30am, my legs would not be in any shape to allow me to go on.
I thought about my first DNF, in that marathon. I remembered how much it stuck with me. I had a much greater emotional investment in this race. I asked myself one last time, couldn't I just tough it out a little longer to avoid having the memory of this race as a DNF for years to come? I could surely at least start moving up the trail. The beginning isn't so bad. But if I start, I'll keep going. And it's just too much of a risk, no matter HOW much time I have.
While Chris retrieved her car, I unpinned my race number. I hobbled over to the man with the clip board, and told him that I was done. Offered him my race number. "Do you need to take this?"
"I'm not sure." He called over the aid station captain. "Hey, we need to take the race number?"
The aid station captain came over and looked at the number. "No, you can keep that." And with a smile that was either sardonic or sympathetic --- I couldn't decipher it in the light of the aid station tent --- he said, "It's your souvenir."
After we drove away, I worried that I would look back at this point, and second guess my decision. Did I stop just because I was tired, and I happened to have some convenient excuses? In hindsight, I might not trust my judgment. Fortunately, Chris and I have similar views about these sorts of events, and whether my judgment after 68 miles was trustworthy or not, Chris was certainly on objective party, and she's more aware of my abilities and limitations than anyone else. If I could have gone on, she never would have let me stop. As it was, she later admitted that before I even arrived at the aid station, she was pretty sure my day was over. She wasn't planning on letting me continue without a fight.
We were fortunate enough to get back to the race headquarters (where I had rented a cabin for the weekend) just after Sean Andrish had left the last aid station, Elizabeth Furnace (AS16) with a large lead. We stuck around to see him finish. After running a great race, there were about six of us waiting at the end of a large field at 1:30am so that we could congratulate Sean on an amazing accomplishment.
I showered, slept for a few hours, got some breakfast, then returned to the finish line to watch the rest of the racers finish. I got to cheer in many of the people I had seen pass through the Moreland Gap aid station (AS12) the previous night. At 5:00pm on Sunday, the race was over, and all runners had been accounted for. We had 138 starters and 88 finishers.
After the awards ceremony, I packed up and headed home. While walking from my car to my front door, a neighbor asked why I was walking oddly. Fortunately, I had a good excuse that might not have been the whole story, but it was certainly true.
"I have some tendinitis in my foot."
"Oh man, that must have you really bummed out. So you won't be able to run?"
"Nah, not for a few weeks."
"So what'll you do?"
"I dunno. I guess swim a lot."
"Yeah, pools are gonna open soon!"
After putting a few things away, I was ready to finally get some real sleep. But before I went to bed, I had one more thing to do. I found my race number, and my safety pins. I crawled to the side of my bed next to the wall, and pinned my number to the wall. It's high enough not to get knocked off my my covers, but low enough that I'll see it. It's the only thing on the walls in my bedroom. It's not really a souvenir. It's motivation. For next time.